How to create the best at-home videoconferencing setup, for every budget

Your life probably involves a lot more videoconferencing now than it did a few weeks ago – even if it already did involve a lot. That’s not likely going to change anytime soon, so why not make the most of it? The average MacBook webcam can technically get the job done, but it’s far from impressive. There are a number of ways to up your game, however – by spending either just a little or a whole lot. Whether you’re just looking to improve your daily virtual stand-up, gearing up for presenting at a virtual conference, or planning a new video podcast, here’s some advice about what to do to make the most of what you’ve got, or what to get if you really want to maximize your video and audio quality.

Level 0

Turn on a light and put it in the right place

One of the easiest things you can do to improve the look of your video is to simply turn on any light you have handy and position it behind the camera shining on your face. That might mean moving a lamp, or moving your computer if all your available lights are in a fixed position, but it can make a dramatic difference. Check out these examples below, screen grabbed from my Microsoft Surface Book 2 (which actually has a pretty good built-in video camera, as far as built-in video cameras go).

The image above is without any light beyond the room’s ceiling lights on, and the image below is turning on a lamp and positioning it directed on my face from above and behind the Surface Book. It’s enough of a change to make it look less like I got caught by surprise with my video on, and more like I actually am attending a meeting I’m supposed to take part in.

Be aware of what’s behind you

It’s definitely too much to ask to set dress your surroundings for every video call you jump on, but it is worth taking a second to spot check what’s visible in the frame. Ideally, you can find a spot where the background is fairly minimal, with some organized decor visible. Close doors that are in frame, and try not to film in front of an uncovered window. And if you’re living in a pandemic-induced mess of clutter, just shovel the clutter until it’s out of frame.

Know your system sound settings

Get to know where the input volume settings are for your device and operating system. It’s not usually much of an issue, because most apps and systems set pretty sensible defaults, but if you’re also doing something unusual like sitting further away from your laptop to try to fit a second person in frame, then you might want to turn up the input audio slider to make sure anyone listening can actually hear what you have to say.

It’s probably controllable directly in whatever app you’re using, but on Macs, also try going to System Preferences > Sound > Input to check if the level is directly controllable for the device you’re using, and if tweaking that produces the result you’re looking for.

Level 1

Get an external webcam

The built-in webcam on most notebooks and all-in-ones isn’t going to be great, and you can almost always improve things by buying a dedicated webcam instead. Right now, it might be hard to find them in stock, since a lot of people have the same need for a boost in videoconferencing quality all at the same time. But if you can get your hands on even a budget upgrade option like the Logitech C922 Pro Stream 1080p webcam I used for the clip below, it should help with sharpness, low light performance, color and more.

Get a basic USB mic

Dedicated external mics are another way to quickly give your setup a big boost for relatively low cost. In the clip above, I used the popular Samson Meteor USB mic, which has built-in legs and dedicated volume/mute controls. This mic includes everything you need, and should work instantly when you plug it in via USB, and it produces great sound that’s ideal for vocals.

Get some headphones

Headphones of any kind will make your video calls and conferences better, since it minimizes the chance of echo from your mic picking up the audio from your own speakers. Big over ears models are good for sound quality, while earbuds make for less obvious headwear in your actual video image.

Level 2

Use a dedicated camera and an HDMI-to-USB interface

If you already have a standalone camera, including just about any consumer pocket camera with HDMI out capabilities, then it’s worth looking into picking up an HDMI-to-USB video capture interface in order to convert it into a much higher quality webcam. In the clip below I’m using the Sony RX100 VII, which is definitely at the high end of the consumer pocket camera market, but there are a range of options that should give you nearly the same level of quality, including the older RX100 models from Sony .

When looking for an HDMI interface, make sure that they advertise that it works with videoconferencing apps like Zoom, Hangouts and Skype on Mac and Windows without any software required: This means that they likely have UVC capabilities, which means those operating systems will recognize them as webcams without any driver downloads or special apps required out of the box. These are also in higher demand due to COVID-19, so the Elgato Cam Link 4K I used here probably isn’t in ready stock anywhere. Instead, look to alternatives like the IOGear Video Capture Adapter or the Magewell USB 3.0 Capture device, or potentially consider upgrading to a dedicated live broadcast deck like the Blackmagic ATEM Mini I’ll talk more about below.

Get a wired lav mic

A simple wired lavalier (lav) microphone is a great way to upgrade your audio game, and it doesn’t even need to cost that much. You can get a wired lav that performs decently well for as little as $20 on Amazon, and you can use a USB version for connecting directly to your computer even if you don’t have a 3.5mm input port. Rode’s Lavalier GO is a great mid-range option that also works well with the Wireless GO transmitter and receiver kit I mention in the next section. The main limitation of this is that depending on cord length, you could be pretty limited in terms of your range of motion while using one.

Get multiple lights and position them effectively

Lighting is a rabbit hole that ends up going very deep, but getting a couple of lights that you can move to where you need them most is a good, inexpensive way to get started. Amazon offers a wide range of lighting kits that fit the bill, or you can even do pretty well with just a couple of Philips Hue lights in gooseneck lamps positioned correctly and adjusted to the right temperature and brightness.

Level 3

Use an interchangeable lens camera and a fast lens

The next step up from a decent compact camera is one that features interchangeable lenses. This allows you to add a nice, fast prime lens with a high maximum aperture (aka a low ‘f’ number’) to get that defocused background look. This provides natural-looking separation of you, the subject, from whatever is behind you, and provides a cinematic feel that will wow colleagues in your monthly all-hands.

Get a wireless lav mic

A lav mic is great, but a wireless lav mic is even better. It means you don’t need to worry about hitting the end of your cable, or getting it tangled in other cables in your workspace, and it can provide more flexibility in terms of what audio interfaces you use to actually get your sound into the computer, too. A great option here is the RODE Wireless GO, which can work on its own or in tandem with a mic like the RODE Lavalier GO for great, flexible sound.

Use in-ear monitors

You still want to be using headphones at this stage, but the best kind to use really are in-ear monitors that do their best to disappear out of sight. You can get some dedicated broadcast-style monitors like those Shure makes, or you can spring for a really good pair of Bluetooth headphones with low latency and the latest version of Bluetooth. Apple’s AirPods Pro is a great option, as are the Bang & Olfusen E8 fully wireless earbuds, which I’ve used extensively without any noticeable lag.

Use 3-point lighting

At this stage, it’s really time to just go ahead and get serious about lighting. The best balance in terms of optimizing specifically for streaming, videoconferencing and anything else your’e doing from your desk, basically, is to pick up at least two of Elgato’s Key Lights or Key Light Airs.

These are LED panel lights with built-in diffusers that don’t have a steep learning curve, and that come with very sturdy articulating tube mounts with desk clamps, and that connect to Wi-Fi for control via smartphones or desktop applications. You can adjust their temperature, meaning you can make them either more ‘blue’ or more ‘orange’ depending on your needs, as well as tweak their brightness.

Using three of these, you can set up a standard 3-point lighting setup which are ideal for interviews or people speaking directly into a camera – aka just about every virtual conference/meeting/event/webinar use you can think of.

Level 4

Get an HDMI broadcast switcher deck

HDMI-USB capture devices do a fine job turning most cameras into webcams, but if you really want to give yourself a range of options, you can upgrade to a broadcast switching interface like the Blackmagic ATEM Mini. Released last year, the ATEM Mini packs in a lot of features that previously were basically only available to video pros, and provides them in an easy-to-use form factor with a price that’s actually astounding given how much this thing can really do.

On its own paired with a good camera, the ATEM Mini can add a lot to your video capabilities, including allowing you to tee up still graphics, and switch to computer input to show videos, work live in graphics apps, demonstrate code or run a presentation. You can set up picture-in-picture views, put up lower thirds and even fade-to-black using a hardware button dedicated to that purpose.

But if you really want to make the most of the ATEM Mini, you can add a second or even a third and fourth camera to the mix. For most uses, this is probably way too much camera – there are only so many angles one can get of a single person talking, in the end. But if you get creative with camera placement and subjects, it’s a fun and interesting way to break up a stream, especially if you’re doing something longer like giving a speech or extended presentation. The newer ATEM Mini Pro is just starting to ship, and offers built-in recording and streaming as well.

Use a broadcast-quality shotgun mic

The ATEM Mini has two dedicated audio inputs that really give you a lot of flexibility on that front, too. Attaching one to the output on an iPod touch, for instance, could let you use that device as a handy soundboard for cueing up intro and title music, plus sound effects. And this also means you can route sound from a high-quality mic, provided you have the right interface.

For top level streaming quality, with minimal sacrifices required in terms of video, I recommend going to a good, broadcast-quality shotgun mic. The Rode VideoMic NTG is a good entry-level option that has flexibility when it comes to also being mountable on-camera, but something like the Rode NTG3m mounted to a boom arm and placed out of frame with the mic end angled down towards your mouth, is going to provide the best possible results.

Add accent lighting

You’ve got your 3-point lighting – but as I said, lighting is a nearly endless rabbit hole. Accent lighting can really help push the professionalism of your video even further, and it’s also pretty easy and to set up using readily available equipment. Philips Hue is probably my favorite way to add a little more vitality to any scene, and if you’re already a Hue user you can make do with just about any of their color bulbs. Recent releases from Philips like the Hue Play Smart LED Light Bars are essentially tailor made for this use, and you can daisy chain up to three on one power adapter to create awesome accent wall lighting effects.

All of this is, of course, not at all necessary for basic video conferencing, virtual hangouts and meetings. But if you think that remote video is going to be a bigger part of our lives going forward, even as we return to some kind of normalcy in the wake of COVID-19, then it’s worth considering what elements of your system to upgrade based on your budget and needs, and hopefully this article provides some guidance.

Legal services giant Epiq Global offline after ransomware attack

Legal services giant Epiq Global has been hit by a ransomware attack.

The law firm, which provides legal counsel and administration that counts banks, credit giants, and governments as customers, confirmed the attack hit on February 29.

“As part of our comprehensive response plan, we immediately took our systems offline globally to contain the threat and began working with a third-party forensic firm to conduct an independent investigation,” a company statement read. “Our technical team is working closely with world class third-party experts to address this matter, and bring our systems back online in a secure manner, as quickly as possible.”

The company’s website, however, says it was “offline to perform maintenance.”

A source with knowledge of the incident but who was not authorized to speak to the media said the ransomware hit the organization’s entire fleet of computers across its 80 global offices. According to an internal communication sent to staff that was obtained by TechCrunch, the law firm said staff should “not go” to their local offices without managerial approval. Staff in offices were advised to avoid connecting any device to the network. The communication also said that staff should “turn off the Wi-Fi on your laptop before entering the parking lot of the building” in an effort to prevent the spread of the ransomware.

Many of the computers were running old versions of Windows, the source said. “Nothing is up to date,” the source said.

The source came forward because, in their words, “we were told not to tell clients anything until we are back in.”

It’s not immediately clear which kind of ransomware was used in the attack, but Epiq Global said in its statement that there was “no evidence” that data was stolen. Although ransomware typically infects computers, spreads, and encrypts files across a network in exchange for a ransom, some newer and more advanced ransomware families also exfiltrated corporate data before encrypting the files and threatened to publish the files unless a ransom is paid.

Just this week, Visser, a parts manufacturer for Tesla and SpaceX, was hit by a more advanced, data exfiltrating ransomware. A portion of the files stolen from the company were published by the ransomware group.

Epiq spokesperson Catherine Ostheimer declined to disclose the details of the ransomware, nor did she provide a percentage of the data or computers impacted by the attack. Ostheimer also declined to confirm the contents of the email obtained by TechCrunch.

None of our specific questions were addressed, including if the law firm had contacted its clients impacted by the attack.

“Our offices globally are open for business and we’re working with third party experts to address this matter, and to bring our systems back on line in a secure way as quickly as possible,” the spokesperson said.

Proxyclick raises $15M Series B for its visitor management platform

If you’ve ever entered a company’s office as a visitor or contractor, you probably know the routine: check in with a receptionist, figure out who invited you, print out a badge and get on your merry way. Brussels, Belgium- and New York-based Proxyclick aims to streamline this process, while also helping businesses keep their people and assets secure. As the company announced today, it has raised a $15 million Series B round led by Five Elms Capital, together with previous investor Join Capital.

In total, Proxyclick says it’s systems have now been used to register over 30 million visitors in 7,000 locations around the world. In the UK alone, over 1,000 locations use the company’s tools. Current customers include L’Oreal, Vodafone, Revolut, PepsiCo and Airbnb, as well as a number of other Fortune 500 firms.

Gregory Blondeau, founder and CEO of Proxyclick, stresses that the company believes that paper logbooks, which are still in use in many companies, are simply not an acceptable solution anymore, not in the least because that record is often permanent and visible to other visitors.

Proxyclick’s founding team.

“We all agree it is not acceptable to have those paper logbooks at the entrance where everyone can see previous visitors,” he said. “It is also not normal for companies to store visitors’ digital data indefinitely. We already propose automatic data deletion in order to respect visitor privacy. In a few weeks, we’ll enable companies to delete sensitive data such as visitor photos sooner than other data. Security should not be an excuse to exploit or hold visitor data longer than required.”

What also makes Proxyclick stand out from similar solutions is that it integrates with a lot of existing systems for access control (including C-Cure and Lenel systems). With that, users can ensure that a visitor only has access to specific parts of a building, too.

In addition, though, it also supports existing meeting rooms, calendaring and parking systems and integrates with Wi-Fi credentialing tools so your visitors don’t have to keep asking for the password to get online.

Like similar systems, Proxyclick provides businesses with a tablet-based sign-in service that also allows them to get consent and NDA signatures right during the sign-in process. If necessary, the system can also compare the photos it takes to print out badges with those on a government-issued ID to ensure your visitors are who they say they are.

Blondeau noted that the whole industry is changing, too. “Visitor management is becoming mainstream, it is transitioning from a local, office-related subject handled by facility managers to a global, security and privacy driven priority handled by Chief Information Security Officers. Scope, decision drivers and key people involved are not the same as in the early days,” he said.

It’s no surprise then that the company plans to use the new funding to accelerate its roadmap. Specifically, it’s looking to integrate its solution with more third-party systems with a focus on physical security features and facial recognition, as well as additional new enterprise features.

Netgear’s Meural Canvas II is a better version of the best home gadget for photographers

Netgear has released the first updated Canvas digital art from from Meural since acquiring the company last September, and the next-generation connected frame comes with some decent quality-of-life improvements as well as a new, additional size. It’s not a dramatic change from the original Meural Canvas, but it means that a product that was already great is now even better.

The Meural Canvas II from Netgear comes in two sizes, including a smaller 16×24 frame that provides a 21.5-inch diagonal picture (starting at $399.95), and a 19×29-inch frame with a 27-inch diagonal display (starting at $599.95). Both screens are 1080P full HD resolution, and both feature ambient light sensors (which are relocated to a better location under the mat that surrounds the screen for improved light detection) that will automatically adjust the brightness of your image to make it appear more natural and less like a screen.

The Canvas II features built-in Wi-Fi, which is also upgraded with this generation (Netgear, which makes routers and other Wi-Fi products, seem to have brought their expertise to bear here) and they offer new Ethernet connectivity, as well as full-size SD ports. They can also hang either vertically or horizontally, and a new accessory mount for this generation (sold separately) allows for even easier switching between the two orientations via simple rotation.

For the virtual art collector

Meural is controlled primarily from the Meural companion app, though you can also access a web interface to accomplish much of the same thing from a desktop browser. The app features curated collections of artwork, which is available both via a paid monthly subscription, and via direct, one-time purchases. One of the changes that the Meural service has undergone is that the subscription membership now gets you some, but not all of the art available – some premium content is still and additional charge on top of that. It’s definitely not as good from the user’s perspective as when everything was free once you’d paid the subscription fee, but paying monthly still nets you 20GB of cloud storage for uploading your own art, discounts on the stuff that is available for purchase, and access to a much larger library than you get without any membership.

Subscriptions go for either $8.95 per month, or $69.95 per year, and they’re probably plenty to satisfy most casual art lovers who just want some recognizable or interesting works to adorn their walls, and want to be able to change that on a fairly regular basis. And when you use the art provided through Meural’s various collections, you can take a look at credits and descriptions right on the display – available quickly via a motion control swipe up gesture made possibly by the sensors built into the frame.

A note on those motion controls – they allow you to navigate between artwork, and even change playlists and access a menu of other options related to the frame. Basically you wave your hand near the bottom of the Meural to make this work, and it’s great when it does work, but it definitely takes some learning to figure out how and where to swipe to make it reliably respond. It’s convenient that it’s an option, but controlling the display with the iOS or Android app is a lot more pleasant generally speaking.

The built-in library that Meural provides is definitely a selling point, and Meural is regularly adding new art collections, both for paid purchases and to build out the library of those works available included in the subscription. It just added a bunch through a new partnership with Marvel, in fact, including movie posters from a long list of their cinematic universe releases.

For the amateur/enthusiast/pro photographer

The primary reason I think the Meural Canvas II is a fantastic product has very little to do with its subscription-based art collection, however. Instead, it’s all about the flexibility and convenience that the Canvas provides when it comes to displaying your own photos. It’s incredibly easy to upload your photos from your mobile device or your desktop, and you can organize them in playlists, add descriptions and titles, and crop them manually or have the frame crop them automatically to display in its 16×9 aspect ratio.

As a display for your own photos, the Meural Canvas II is hard to beat: It’s a lot more flexible and cost effective than getting high quality prints made, since you can rotate them out as often as you feel like, and the display’s color rendering and matte finish, while obviously not as good as a professional photo print, is nonetheless very pleasing to the eye. When you take as many photos as we collectively do now, but seldom have anywhere to show them off, the Canvas provides the perfect opportunity to ensure they have a great place to shine at home.

The included SD card reader means it’s easy to load up images and put them on the Canvas locally, but I also found that uploading from whatever WiFi-connected device I had access to around the house was easy and fast (again, seems like Netgear’s core expertise came into play here). The ability to quickly change the orientation, which is fast and simple even without the rotation mount accessory, is another big plus for your own photos since it means you can show off both portraits and landscapes.

Oh, and the ability to load your own artwork isn’t limited to just your photography, of course – any image in a standard format, including animated GIFs, can work on the Meural, which means it’s really only limited by the scope of what’s available on the internet.

Bottom line

Between the frame options, which you can swap out for different color options eventually when they’re sold separately, and the ability to upload your own content to the Canvas, it’s easily the most customizable piece of home decor you can find right now. For some, opting to move up to something like Samsung’s The Frame TV might be a better option, but that’s much larger, much more expensive, much heavier for mounting and not as flexible when it comes to playlists and your own curation of art to display.

The Meural Canvas II provides largely the same visual experience as the generation it replaces, but the other improvements make this a much better product overall, with faster, more reliable WiFi connectivity, improved motion controls, more flexible on-device storage and new mounting options. If you like some variety in your wall art, or you’ve just been trying to figure out to do something interesting with all those pictures you take, the Meural Canvas II is a great option.

Startup aims to make filtered water an app-driven subscription service in the home

With so many scandals around the quality of tap water these days, especially in the US, many people are turning to bottled water to drink. But this requires single-use plastics that are wreaking havoc on the environment.

One startup in Europe, Mitte, thinks it has the answer: filtering water direct from the tap. It’s raised $10.6 million in a seed round. But it hasn’t started manufacturing yet. A new US-based startup thinks is has a competitive solution.

oollee provides people with an unlimited supply of filtered drinking water for a small monthly fee. It’s now raised $1 million in pre-seed funding from investors including Mission Gate Inc and Columbus Holdings.

The idea is that with ordinary filters, people forget to maintain them and the water quality deteriorates. With oollee, maintenance and cartridge replacements are included in the monthly fee. To subscribe costs $29 per month (so less than $1 a day).

oollee uses the Reverse Osmosis method, where water is forced across a semipermeable membrane, leaving contaminants behind, which are then flushed down the drain. The clean drinking water collects in a holding tank. Usually, the installation and maintenance of an RO filter is costly and is too cumbersome for a house.

Umit Khiarollaev, CEO and co-founder of oollee says: “The small device connects to Wi-Fi and allows customers to monitor the water. The app reminds users to replace the filter element and lets them order new filters with a single click. Users can also check water condition, volume, temperature, and other factors.” Users can also check water condition, volume, temperature, and other factors. The oollee water purifier filters water in four stages, re-introducing essential minerals in the final stage.

Competitors are all major bottled water or smart filters manufacturers plus delivery services like Nestle or Alhambra and the tech giant Xiaomi in China with water filters.

Amazon Sidewalk is a new long-range wireless network for your stuff

At its annual hardware event in Seattle, Amazon today announced Sidewalk, a new low-bandwidth, long-distance wireless protocol the company is developing to connect all of the IoT devices in and around your house.

Amazon argues that Bluetooth and WiFi don’t have enough range, while 5F takes too much power and is too complex.

“We came up with something that we call Amazon Sidewalk,” Amazon’s device chief Dave Limp said at the event today. “Amazon Sidewalk is a brand new low bandwidth network that uses the already existing free over the air 900 megahertz spectrum. We think it will be great for keeping track of things, keeping things up to date — but first and foremost, it will extend in the distance at which you can control these kinds of simple, low-cost, easy-to-use devices.

The details here remain a bit vague, but Amazon says that you may be able to use Sidewalk to connect to devices that can be up to a mile away, depending on how the base station and devices are positioned.

Image from iOS 3 1

Amazon already sent out 700 test devices to households in L.A. to test the access points — and once you have a lot of access points, you create a network with some pretty broad coverage.

Amazon says it’ll publish the protocol so that other device makers can also integrate it into their devices.

The first product that uses Sidewalk? A dog tag, so that you’ll hopefully see fewer lost dogs on your local Nextdoor in the near future because if your dog now leaves the perimeter, you’ll get an alert. This new tag, the Ring Fetch, will launch next year.

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iOS 13: Here are the new security and privacy features you need to know

It’s finally here.

Apple’s new iOS 13, the thirteenth major iteration of its popular iPhone software, is out to download. We took iOS 13 for a spin with a focus on the new security and privacy features to see what’s new and how it all works.

Here’s what you need to know.

You’ll start to see reminders about apps that track your location

1 location track

Ever wonder which apps track your location? Wonder no more. iOS 13 periodically reminds you about apps that are tracking your location in the background. Every so often it will tell you how many times an app has tracked where you’ve been in a recent period of time, along with a small map of the location points. From this screen you can “always allow” the app to track your location or have the option to limit the tracking.

You can grant an app your location just once

2 location ask

To give you more control over what data have access to, iOS 13 now lets you give apps access to your location just once. Previously there was “always,” “never” or “while using,” meaning an app could be collecting your real-time location as you’re using it. Now you can grant an app access on a per use basis — particularly helpful for the privacy-minded folks.

And apps wanting access to Bluetooth can be declined access

Screen Shot 2019 07 18 at 12.18.38 PM

Apps wanting to access Bluetooth will also ask for your consent. Although apps can use Bluetooth to connect to gadgets, like fitness bands and watches, Bluetooth-enabled tracking devices known as beacons can be used to monitor your whereabouts. These beacons are found everywhere — from stores to shopping malls. They can grab your device’s unique Bluetooth identifier and track your physical location between places, building up a picture of where you go and what you do — often for targeting you with ads. Blocking Bluetooth connections from apps that clearly don’t need it will help protect your privacy.

Find My gets a new name — and offline tracking

5 find my

Find My, the new app name for locating your friends and lost devices, now comes with offline tracking. If you lost your laptop, you’d rely on its last Wi-Fi connected location. Now it broadcasts its location using Bluetooth, which is securely uploaded to Apple’s servers using nearby cellular-connected iPhones and other Apple devices. The location data is cryptographically scrambled and anonymized to prevent anyone other than the device owner — including Apple — from tracking your lost devices.

Your apps will no longer be able to snoop on your contacts’ notes

8 contact snoop

Another area that Apple is trying to button down is your contacts. Apps have to ask for your permission before they can access to your contacts. But in doing so they were also able to access the personal notes you wrote on each contact, like their home alarm code or a PIN number for phone banking, for example. Now, apps will no longer be able to see what’s in each “notes” field in a user’s contacts.

Sign In With Apple lets you use a fake relay email address

6 sign in

This is one of the cooler features coming soon — Apple’s new sign-in option allows users to sign in to apps and services with one tap, and without having to turn over any sensitive or private information. Any app that requires a sign-in option must use Sign In With Apple as an option. In doing so users can choose to share their email with the app maker, or choose a private “relay” email, which hides a user’s real email address so the app only sees a unique Apple-generated email instead. Apple says it doesn’t collect users’ data, making it a more privacy-minded solution. It works across all devices, including Android devices and websites.

You can silence unknown callers

4 block callers

Here’s one way you can cut down on disruptive spam calls: iOS 13 will let you send unknown callers straight to voicemail. This catches anyone who’s not in your contacts list will be considered an unknown caller.

You can strip location metadata from your photos

7 strip location

Every time you take a photo your iPhone stores the precise location of where the photo was taken as metadata in the photo file. But that can reveal sensitive or private locations — such as your home or office — if you share those photos on social media or other platforms, many of which don’t strip the data when they’re uploaded. Now you can. With a few taps, you can remove the location data from a photo before sharing it.

And Safari gets better anti-tracking features

9 safari improvements

Apple continues to advance its new anti-tracking technologies in its native Safari browser, like preventing cross-site tracking and browser fingerprinting. These features make it far more difficult for ads to track users across the web. iOS 13 has its cross-site tracking technology enabled by default so users are protected from the very beginning.

First published on July 19 and updated with iOS 13’s launch. 

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Get popcorn for iOS 13’s privacy pop-ups of creepy Facebook data grabs

Privacy-minded changes to smartphone operating systems which foreground the background activity of third party apps are helping to spotlight more of the surveillance infrastructure deployed by adtech giants to track and profile human eyeballs for profit.

To wit: iOS 13, which will be generally released later this week, has already been spotted catching Facebook’s app trying to use Bluetooth to track nearby users.

facebook BT

Why might Facebook want to do this? Matching Bluetooth (and wif-fi) IDs that share physical location could allow it to supplement the social graph it gleans by data-mining user-to-user activity on its platform.

Such location tracking provides a physical confirm that individuals were (at very least) in close proximity.

Combined with personal data Facebook also holds on people, and contextual data on the nature of the location itself — a bar, say, or a house — there’s a clear path for the company to make inferences about the nature of the relationship between the people who it’s repurposed short range wireless tech to determine are in close contact.

For a company that makes money by serving targeted ads at humans there are clear commercial reasons for Facebook to seek to intimately understand people’s friend networks.

Facebook piggybacking on people’s use of Bluetooth for benign purposes like pairing devices so that its ad business can ‘pair’ people is the sneaky modus operandi that iOS 13 has caught in the act here.

Ads are Facebook’s business, as CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously told the senate last year. But it’s worth noting the social network giant recently sought to push into the dating space — giving it a fresh, product-based incentive to pry into where and with whom humans are spending their time.

Algorithmic matchmaking based on cold signals like shared interests (in basic Facebook currency this might mean stuff like liking the same pages and events) is of course nothing new.

Yet mix in hot-blooded signals gathered by watching who actually mingles with whom, where and when — by repurposing Bluetooth to harvest interpersonal interactions via tracking people’s physical movements — and Facebook can take its curtain-twitching surveillance of human behavior to the next level.

The path of least resistance to tracking people’s movements is if Facebook app users are opting in to location tracking on their devices. Which means users enabling Location Services — a location tracking feature on smartphones that covers GPS, Bluetooth and crowd-sources wi-fi hotspots and mobile cell towers.

Unsurprisingly, then Facebook Dating requires Location Services to be enabled to function. The company confirmed to us that the Facebook app prompts dating users to enable Location Services if they haven’t already. Facebook also told us it doesn’t use wi-fi or Bluetooth to determine a person’s precise location if a user has Location Services turned off.

It also made a point of emphasizing that users can switch Location Services off at any time. Just not if they wish to use, er, Facebook Dating…

As per usual the company is tangling separate purposes for data processing in a way that denies people a meaningful choice over protecting their privacy. Hence Facebook dating users get to ‘choose’ between being able to use the service; or being able to blanket-deny Facebook the ability to track their physical movements. Like it or lump it.

iOS 13’s new privacy pop-ups to call out background app activity are a clear response to such disingenuous methods by an industry Apple CEO Tim Cook has dubbed the data industrial complex — putting a degree of control back in the hands of the user, who gets a third choice of manually disallowing Bluetooth proximity tracking (in the above example).

Android 10 has also recently expanded the location tracking controls it offers users — with the ability to only share location data with apps while you use them. Though Google’s OS lags far behind what Apple is now offering with these granular pop-ups.

Facebook has responded to awkward (for it) privacy changes incoming at the smartphone OS level by putting out an update on location services last week — where it seeks to get ahead of the deluge of data-grab warnings that iOS users of the Facebook app are likely to experience as they update to iOS 13.

Here it tries to spin Apple’s pro-active foregrounding of apps’ background tracking tactics via push notifications as “reminders” — in just one amusing rebrand.

But in a truly shameless contradiction Facebook also goes on to claim that: “You’re in control of who sees your location on Facebook” (because it says users can make use of the Location Services setting on a phone or tablet to deny tracking) — before admitting that switching off Location Services doesn’t actually mean Facebook will not track your location.

Just because you’re signalling very clearly to Facebook that you don’t want your location to be collected by Facebook doesn’t mean Facebook is going to respect that. Hell no!

“We may still understand your location using things like check-ins, events and information about your internet connection,” it writes. (For a clearer understanding of Facebook’s use of the word “understand” in that sentence we suggest you try substituting the word “steal”.)

In a final shameless kicker — in which Facebook almost appears to be trying to claim credit for smartphone OSes building more privacy features in response to its data grabs — the company seeks to finish on a forward-gazing note, per its preferred crisis PR custom, writing: “We’ll continue to make it easier for you to control how and when you share your location.”

Facebook dishing out misleading qualifications (e.g. “easier”) that whitewash the extent of its rampant data grabs is nothing new. But how much longer it can hope to rely on such flimsy figleaves to cover its privacy sins as the winds of change come rattling through remains to be seen…

Get popcorn for iOS 13’s privacy pop-ups of creepy Facebook data grabs

Privacy-minded changes to smartphone operating systems which foreground the background activity of third party apps are helping to spotlight more of the surveillance infrastructure deployed by adtech giants to track and profile human eyeballs for profit.

To wit: iOS 13, which will be generally released later this week, has already been spotted catching Facebook’s app trying to use Bluetooth to track nearby users.

facebook BT

Why might Facebook want to do this? Matching Bluetooth (and wif-fi) IDs that share physical location could allow it to supplement the social graph it gleans by data-mining user-to-user activity on its platform.

Such location tracking provides a physical confirm that individuals were (at very least) in close proximity.

Combined with personal data Facebook also holds on people, and contextual data on the nature of the location itself — a bar, say, or a house — there’s a clear path for the company to make inferences about the nature of the relationship between the people who it’s repurposed short range wireless tech to determine are in close contact.

For a company that makes money by serving targeted ads at humans there are clear commercial reasons for Facebook to seek to intimately understand people’s friend networks.

Facebook piggybacking on people’s use of Bluetooth for benign purposes like pairing devices so that its ad business can ‘pair’ people is the sneaky modus operandi that iOS 13 has caught in the act here.

Ads are Facebook’s business, as CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously told the senate last year. But it’s worth noting the social network giant recently sought to push into the dating space — giving it a fresh, product-based incentive to pry into where and with whom humans are spending their time.

Algorithmic matchmaking based on cold signals like shared interests (in basic Facebook currency this might mean stuff like liking the same pages and events) is of course nothing new.

Yet mix in hot-blooded signals gathered by watching who actually mingles with whom, where and when — by repurposing Bluetooth to harvest interpersonal interactions via tracking people’s physical movements — and Facebook can take its curtain-twitching surveillance of human behavior to the next level.

The path of least resistance to tracking people’s movements is if Facebook app users are opting in to location tracking on their devices. Which means users enabling Location Services — a location tracking feature on smartphones that covers GPS, Bluetooth and crowd-sources wi-fi hotspots and mobile cell towers.

Unsurprisingly, then Facebook Dating requires Location Services to be enabled to function. The company confirmed to us that the Facebook app prompts dating users to enable Location Services if they haven’t already. Facebook also told us it doesn’t use wi-fi or Bluetooth to determine a person’s precise location if a user has Location Services turned off.

It also made a point of emphasizing that users can switch Location Services off at any time. Just not if they wish to use, er, Facebook Dating…

As per usual the company is tangling separate purposes for data processing in a way that denies people a meaningful choice over protecting their privacy. Hence Facebook dating users get to ‘choose’ between being able to use the service; or being able to blanket-deny Facebook the ability to track their physical movements. Like it or lump it.

iOS 13’s new privacy pop-ups to call out background app activity are a clear response to such disingenuous methods by an industry Apple CEO Tim Cook has dubbed the data industrial complex — putting a degree of control back in the hands of the user, who gets a third choice of manually disallowing Bluetooth proximity tracking (in the above example).

Android 10 has also recently expanded the location tracking controls it offers users — with the ability to only share location data with apps while you use them. Though Google’s OS lags far behind what Apple is now offering with these granular pop-ups.

Facebook has responded to awkward (for it) privacy changes incoming at the smartphone OS level by putting out an update on location services last week — where it seeks to get ahead of the deluge of data-grab warnings that iOS users of the Facebook app are likely to experience as they update to iOS 13.

Here it tries to spin Apple’s pro-active foregrounding of apps’ background tracking tactics via push notifications as “reminders” — in just one amusing rebrand.

But in a truly shameless contradiction Facebook also goes on to claim that: “You’re in control of who sees your location on Facebook” (because it says users can make use of the Location Services setting on a phone or tablet to deny tracking) — before admitting that switching off Location Services doesn’t actually mean Facebook will not track your location.

Just because you’re signalling very clearly to Facebook that you don’t want your location to be collected by Facebook doesn’t mean Facebook is going to respect that. Hell no!

“We may still understand your location using things like check-ins, events and information about your internet connection,” it writes. (For a clearer understanding of Facebook’s use of the word “understand” in that sentence we suggest you try substituting the word “steal”.)

In a final shameless kicker — in which Facebook almost appears to be trying to claim credit for smartphone OSes building more privacy features in response to its data grabs — the company seeks to finish on a forward-gazing note, per its preferred crisis PR custom, writing: “We’ll continue to make it easier for you to control how and when you share your location.”

Facebook dishing out misleading qualifications (e.g. “easier”) that whitewash the extent of its rampant data grabs is nothing new. But how much longer it can hope to rely on such flimsy figleaves to cover its privacy sins as the winds of change come rattling through remains to be seen…

Urbvan raises $9 million for its private shuttle service in Mexico

As cities in emerging markets grapple with increasingly traffic-clogged and dangerous streets, Urbvan, a startup providing private, high-end transportation shuttles in Mexico, has raised $9 million in a new round of financing.

Co-founded by Joao Matos Albino and Renato Picard, Urbvan is taking the reins from startups like the now-defunct Chariot and tailoring the business for the needs of emerging-market ecosystems.

Hailing from Portugal, Albino arrived in Mexico City as a hire for the Rocket Internet startup Linio. Although Linio didn’t last, Albino stayed in Mexico, eventually landing a job working for the startup Mercadoni, which is where he met Picard.

The two men saw the initial success of Chariot as it launched from Y Combinator, but were also tracking companies like the Indian startup Shuttl.

“We wanted to make shared mobility more accessible and a little bit more efficient,” says Albino. “We studied the economics and we studied the market and we knew there was a huge urgency in the congested cities of  Latin America.”

Unlike the U.S. — and especially major cities like San Francisco and New York — where public transportation is viewed as relatively safe and efficient, the urban environment of Mexico City is seen as not safe by the white-collar workers that comprise Urbvan’s principal clientele.

The company started operating back in 2016. At the time it had five vans that it leased and retrofitted to include amenities like Wi-Fi and plenty of space for a limited number of passengers. The company has expanded significantly since those early days. It now claims more than 15,000 monthly users and a fleet of 180 vans.

Urbvan optimized for safety as well as comfort, according to Albino. The company has deals with WeWork, Walmart and other retailers in Mexico City, so that all the stops on a route are protected and safe. The company also vets its drivers and provides them with additional training because of the expanded capacity of the vans.

Each van is also equipped with a panic button and cameras inside and out for additional monitoring.

Customers either pay $3 per ticket or sign up for a monthly pass that ranges from $100 to $130.

Financing for the company came from Kaszek Ventures and Angel Ventures, with previous investor Mountain Nazca also participating.

For Albino, who went to India to observe Shuttl’s operations, the global market for these kinds of services is so large that there will be many winners in each geography.

“Each city is different and you need to adapt. The technology needs to be adaptable to the city’s concerns, and where it can, add more value,” says Albino. “The Indian market is super different from Latin America… It’s a huge market with a lot of congestion… But the value proposition is a bit more basic [for Shuttl].”

Urbvan is currently operating in Mexico City and Monterrey, but has plans to expand into Guadalajara later this year.